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How to use quotations effectively

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You'll know by now that using a quotation is one of my favorite ways of opening a presentation (see How to grab 'em by the throat). And that's for two reasons.

First, it's effective. People might forget 90% of the words you've used, but they'll remember an interesting or humorous quote weeks later.

Second, it's extremely simple. You might struggle to find an anecdote, cartoon or humorous story that's relevant to your presentation topic, but there are literally thousands of quotes online for you to delve into. And too many sites for me to ven attempt to list them. Simply google 'quotation' and the topic you're looking for, and you'll be spoilt for choice.

So finding a quote is relatively easy. But how about using one effectively?

Firstly, don't use a quote that's too long. The best quotes are one or two simple sentences. If you find a great quote that's longer than this, see if there are any words which can be taken out without ruining the message. If you do this however, always replace the omitted words with an ellipsis, i.e. three dots, like this . . . This shows the audience that something has been removed.

It's also permissible to replace a couple of words with something shorter, providing you put them in brackets. For example,lets take the following quotation from the celebrated American poet Maya Angelou:

“People will forget what you’said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” – Maya Angelou

Now personally, I wouldn't change anything in this quote, as it's short enough to repeat verbatim. However, just to use it as an example, you could change it to:

People will forget what you said, (and) . . . did, but (they'll) never forget how you made them feel” – Maya Angelou

Secondly, I always back up a quote with a slide, because the 'visuals' in the audience (i.e. people who take information in through their eyes - probably at least 50% of them) will take you words in better this way. But a slide full of text is a turn-off for everybody (see the previous point).

A good way of making it impactful is to combine it with an image (remember images are registered by the right half of the brain, which generates dopamine, a chemical that helps you remember; see Whole-Brain Presenting). You can do this in two ways.

You can use an image of the person who said it, or an image which illustrates the words themselves, as shown below:

Steve jobs
boy with computer
Silent movie heroine

Thirdly, try to find something a bit different. Some quotes are 'done to death' and over-used. If the quote is humorous, so much the better. It makes it more memorable (again, humor engages the right half of the brain and therefore creates dopamine, the memory enhancing chemical)..

Fourthly, try to pick someone the audience has heard of if you can. But if you can't, don't worry about it. It's more important that the quote delivers the message you want than that it's by someone well known. Sometimes a quote is powerful because of who's said it, but often it's powerful regardless.

There are benefits of using well-known people though. Everyone knows who Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi are, so you don't have to worry about the audience wondering, "Who the @*#! is that?" when you say their name.

If it's someone a bit more obscure like Friedrich Nietzsche, you might say "The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said . . ." You don't need to say, "The German philosopher, poet and composer Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, born 1844, died1900, perhaps best known for his influence on postmodernism and nihilism, and whose most famous concepts include the death of God, perspectivism and the Ubermensch, once said . . ." That's TOO MUCH!!!

And if you're ever worried you might mispronounce someone's name (Nietzsche's is pronounced Knee-che, with the emphasis on 'knee', by the way), you can always just say, "A famous philosopher once said . . ." and omit the name altogether. If you've got a slide with the quote on it, put his/her name on that instead.

If you find a quote by someone you've never heard of, it's always worthwhile looking them up online, just in case someone says,"Who's X?" It probably won't happen, but it's better to be prepared.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes and situations in which you could use them:

When something's gone wrong but a lesson has been learned:

  • "Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try" - Homer Simpson
  • "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed" . . . (Basketball great) Michael Jordan
  • "My heroes are the ones who survived doing it wrong, who made mistakes, but recovered from them" - (U2 band member) Bono
  • "The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall" - (NFL coach) Vince Lombardi

When the subject is significant change of some sort:

  • "He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery" - (1960s UK Prime Minister) Harold Wilson
  • "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it" - (Italian renaissance statesman) Niccolo Machiavelli
  • "It is neither wise nor brave for a man to lie down on the tracks of history and wait for the train of the future to run over him" - (US President) Dwight Eisenhower
  • “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” — (US President) John F. Kennedy
  • “Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm.” — (Management guru) Peter F. Drucker
  • "The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet: once the future does become evenly distributed, it's not the future any more. It's the present" - (American/Canadian novelist) William Gibson

When you're trying to anticipate change:

  • "The great person is ahead of his time, the smart makes something out of it, and the blockhead sets himself against it" - (French philosopher) Jean Baudrillard
  • "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be" - (Canadian hockey legend) Wayne Gretzky

When you're going through hard times:

  • "If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome" - (English 17th century poet) Anne Bradstreet
  • Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not, nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press on' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race" - (US President) Calvin Coolidge
  • "The difference between perseverence and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will, and the other from a strong won't" - (abolitionist) Henry Ward Beecher
  • "Perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragements, and impossibilities: it is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak" - (Scottish Victorian writer and historian) Thomas Carlyle

When you want people to set themselves stretching targets/objectives:

  • "Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work" - (19th century US architect) Daniel H Burnham
  • "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" - (French writer and aviation pioneer) Antoine St Exupery

When you want to emphasize the importance of planning for something:

  • "Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenrate into hard work" - (Management guru) Peter Drucker
  • "I run on the road, long before I dance under the lights" - (boxing great) Muhammed Ali
  • "We talk in coaching about "winners", and I've had a lot of them, who just will not allow themselves or their team to lose. Coaches call that a will to win. I don't. I think that puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Everybody has a will to win. What's far more important is having the will to prepare to win" - (legendary basketball coach) Bobby Hall



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